CHRO Community Conversation interrogates the reality of the metaverse


HR leaders weigh in on the pros and cons of adapting to a complete virtual world of work.

At our latest Community Conversation, Johan Botes, labour law expert, said the world is moving to the metaverse, which has been touted as the next trillion dollar industry.

“Reports about the metaverse are more prevalent than Youtube videos, although less entertaining and certainly intellectually demanding,” Johan said. “It’s been called the next generation of the internet. It’s the next phase of digital evaluation.”

The metaverse, Johan said, could revolutionise interaction between managers, employees, service providers and clients.

The metaverse explained

He described the metaverse as an enhanced, greater seamless connectivity and a more immersive experience.

As devastating as 2020 was, when millions of people were forced to isolate and work from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it brought on new ways of work that people had to adapt to.

“The year also saw online performances taking place,” Johan said. “The virtual office allows you to create an avatar. You are also able to move your avatar around. You can drag yourself to your desk, which can trigger a number of office actions.

In the metaverse one can do the following:

  • If you are hungry, you can drag yourself to the office canteen.
  • You can click on and drag a document to any of your colleagues without the need to email it.
  • If you click on and drag yourself to your colleague, the virtual office automatically launches a chat or call. You do not need to create a meeting request.
  • If you have an annoying colleague, you can drag yourself to the HR office, where you can lodge a complaint.

The law and the metaverse

Johan touched on legal issues around the metaverse and pointed out that there had been a complaint lodged by a female employee that her avatar was groped and that other avatars made obscene remarks against her avatar.

“Also concerning, is if laws are applied jurisdictionally, based on where the user is located, or if new rule books are needed that oversee universal parameters within the digital world. The biggest question is if a digital avatar will have a legal identity and be subject to the same set of laws as the same human that created it,” he asked.

According to Johan, there are issues with people behaving differently in the digital world compared to how they behave in real life interactions. To address this, he said an avatar would need to have a legal personality so that it can be attributed to its creator and its creator can be prosecuted in the real world.

“If the metaverse world has to implement its own universal employment law, in this case, which jurisdiction would it follow? Employment frameworks are vastly different across different countries. Employment law is largely jurisdictional and to apply that to a universal decentralised digital space is going to be tricky.”

He said lawyers were grappling with a number of issues in respect of the metaverse, including
data privacy and security. This, he said, sparked questions about what kind of data can be shared and harvested on the platform and what employee rights are protected in relation to discrimination.

“How does this apply if I choose an avatar that’s an animal or an avatar with a different race or gender? Would the rules be that avatars have to resemble what people look like in real life?

“If anyone tells you that they have the answers to all of this, my advice is to treat their claim with a great deal of scepticism,” Johan said. “There are currently no real metaverse employment law experts.

“There are a great deal of us with an interest in the topic who are drawing from expertise and experience from other areas and jurisdictions to see how we can tackle the inevitable employment law methods that will arise in the metaverse.

“As far as the metaverse is concerned – it’s real, it’s happening. A lot of what we are doing already forms part of what will eventually become the metaverse,” he emphasised.

Weighing in on the matter

Sandock Austral Shipyards' head of HR Sinqobile Khuluse said: “The Metaverse is still relatively unchartered territory for most of us as HR Practitioners, so Johan when you mentioned that anyone can create any avatar they like even if it doesn’t look like them the alarm bells immediately went off in my mind, with concerns around discrimination. The fact that a white male can put on this avatar persona and present themselves as a black female, I got a little bit uncomfortable and I am saying to myself, how do we as HR practitioners instill proper controls, whilst balancing the individual autonomy, so that the action does not come across as micro-aggression? How do we make sure that there are controls or guard rails in place, especially for us as HR, we are the conscience of the Business and we need to be able to manage live relationships within the workplace?”.

Johan said in instances where people created avatars for purposes to create friction in an environment, causing disruption and actually harassing people, action could be taken against such employees.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to drive is authenticity – being able to be yourself at any moment. We’ve been trying to drive that healthy environment of authenticity. What this does is it allows you to be inauthentic,” he added.

Ruth Wotela, chief wellness officer of Silverbridge said: “We’ve seen how the way of working has drastically changed over the last two years. For me it emphasises the need for organisations to relook their policies and adapt to not only where we are now, but to where the world is going, because we can see it’s going to be a totally different world to the way it was.”

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